Recently, I became obsessed with tea brack. I got one of those catalogues for King Arthur Flour in Vermont (affectionately known as King Bisquit by me) and on the back pages was a recipe for tea brack. It seemed like a great fit for my baking box. I think that was the spark. So I looked the cake up on the Internet. Big mistake.
There really is such a thing as too much information. In the olden days, like ten years ago, I would have grabbed a cookbook, found a recipe, and made the cake/bread. But noooooo. Now there are a zillion recipes. Go ahead, Google it and check out the photos.
Now with something like chocolate cake, there a zillion recipes, but they look like chocolate cake. Tea brack was all over the place. Maybe it was because it started out as a bread, but moved over to a more cake-like incarnation. Who knows? Well, it turns out I know quite a bit.
Originally it was a bairín breac. "Bairín" meaning loaf and "breac" meaning speckled, so bairín breac is a speckled loaf, a raisin bread.
"Barm" pronounced like "barn" is the yeast filtered out of beer toward the end of production. It was a cheap source for leavening bread. So it is often called "barmbrack."
Because it sounds like "barn," the English often called the bread "barnbrack."
But some think "barm" is actually derived from the old English word "beorma" meaning yeasty. There is also a word "aran" meaning bread. Aran Breac would be another way of saying yeasty bread.
And since it is Irish and there are a lot of freckles in Ireland, it is also called Freckle bread.
Most recipes require the fruit, usually raisins and sultana, to be soaked in a strong tea overnight, so some people call it Irish Tea Bread, or tea brack. Not to mention it is often served with tea in the afternoon.
If you want to be chummy, just call it brack.
The brack is a tradition in Ireland for Halloween. Much like a King's Cake in New Orleans with a baby baked in, the Halloween brack has all sorts of items tucked in to predict one's future. These item include:
A pea: sadly no marriage for you that year.
A stick: if married you will be unhappy, if not you will have a contentious year.
A rag: you will have bad luck or be poor, which might be seen as the same thing.
A coin: the opposite of the rag, so money and good fortune.
A ring: you are headed to the alter.
A medallion of the Virgin Mary: you are headed to the alter with Jesus.
Fortunatly, it is not Halloween.
Yeast was a popular raising agent in many cakes. The 19th century saw a rise in the popularity of various baking powders that aided in the leavening of cakes. In 1856, Eben Norton Horsford began studying the chemical compositions for a baking powder. He was a founder of the Rumford Chemical Works, named for Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, who endowed the professorship that paid for Horsford's early work. In 1869, his rising mixture was manufactured and commercial baking powder was born.
Really, I just wanted a tea cake!!
First I made a yeasted loaf. It didn't rise much, it wasn't very sweet, and it was dry. I sliced some of it and looked like someone stepped on my biscotti. So I sliced it all, let it dry out and made bread pudding -- Irish Barmbrack Tea Bead Pudding. It was A-OK.
But still, no tea cake.
I looked at recipe after recipe. After the lackluster yeasty brack, I was skeptical. So I devised my own recipe. In the end, I added milk, too much milk, and the cake was a touch soggy in the middle.
However, one is supposed to toast the brack and slather it with butter. So my slightly soggy tea brack dried out in the toaster. Covered with butter, it really didn't matter. It was a tasty little treat. One I will probably never make again! Which is a shame since I know most everything one could possibly know about this cake, except how to make a good one!
Here is the recipe:
FIND YOUR OWN DAMN RECIPE!
OK, fine. The simplest recipe I came across was one on Nigella Lawson's community board. That means it's not Nigella's recipe, just one posted on her site. It would also seem that Nigella's site translates recipes from grams to ounces quite literally, which is kinda funny!
13.24 oz golden raisins
8.83 oz soft light brown sugar
11 fl oz tea (strong, hot)
butter (for greasing)
10.59 oz self-raising flour
1 egg (beaten)
- Put golden raisins, sugar and tea into a large bowl, stir well then cover and leave to steep for at least 8 hours.
- Grease a 1kg/2lb loaf tin and line the bottom with greaseproof paper.
- Stir the flour and egg into the fruit mixture, mix thoroughly, pour into the loaf tin and level surface.
- Bake in heated oven at 150°C/300°F/Gas 2 for 1h1/2 to 1h3/4 until well risen and firm to touch.
- Leave to cool in tin for about 10 mins, then turn onto wire rack.